Corpse paint, shredding guitars, guttural wailing, suicide, murder, power struggles, church burnings…Jonas Akerlund’s Lords of Chaos has everything you want from a fact-ish based dramatization of the darkest, most infamous chapter in extreme metal history. But while it’s high on spectacle and lurid, sensational details, it skimps on depth and motivation.
Based on the book of the same name by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind, which itself is widely regarded as playing fast and loose with the facts, Lords of Chaos tracks the fledgling Norwegian black metal scene of the 1980s and ‘90s. It focuses on Euronymous (Rory Culkin), founder of the influential band Mayhem, and his combative cooperative relationship with Burzum’s Varg (Emory Cohen). What begins as an attempt to make the evilest music the world has ever seen escalates into as saga of violence, including murder and a notorious string of arsons that targeted ancient Norwegian churches.
Lords of Chaos starts off light and breezy only to take a dark turn. Initially, this is mostly bored teenage boys playing rebel. They listen to loud music, roll their eyes at their parents, drink, chase girls, and all the other boys-will-be-boys markers. It’s comical to watch them eat breakfast in corpse paint or borrow money from their mom to fund the wickedest record the world has ever seen. For all their bluster and posturing, these are still kids who use their dad’s car or show up at home when they’re hungry or need to do laundry.
The film, and real-life story, is essentially a tale of that kind of blanket rebellion gone too far and taken to extremes. Testosterone run amok leads to clashing egos as Euronymous and Varg vie for prominence in their small underground scene. Each tries to one up the other and as the situation gets progressively darker, the stakes rise higher and higher as everyone attempts to show they’re the real deal, not mere poser metal tourists.
Culkin and Cohen make compelling leads and their rival insecurities mirror one another. Euronymous is a control freak with a case of imposter syndrome, puffing out his chest and taking credit for the actions of other people—he talks a big game but balks when the talk turns too real. Varg, on the other hand, starts out framed as a schlubby loser (he wears, gasp, a Scorpions patch!!) who desperately wants to fit in with the cool kids and uses increasingly extreme measures to achieve his goals and further his views.
The problem Lords of Chaos is that these are terrible, hateful people. They’re horrific racists and misogynists who use up everyone around them to prove they’re cool. While it provides surface thrills, there’s no one to root for or get behind, and it lacks investment as a result. (The real Varg has publicly decried having a “fat Jewish” actor play his role—Cohen is a fantastic performer and all, but that’s also peak trolling, intentional or not.) They never glorify these assholes, but it’s the kind of thing that’s more engaging to watch as a documentary—btw, you should watch Until the Light Takes Us, a documentary about all of this.
Lords of Chaos glosses over the root motivations in favor of spicy details, raw gore, and sensationalist headline fodder. There’s not time to delve into the history, but if you’re so inclined, there’s a ton of stuff that relates to Scandinavian and Norse Pagan mythology and the long-festering history of resentment towards invading Christianity that fuels much of black metal’s central hatred and influences much of the racism. Instead, the film never delves below the surface. Again, it’s all portrayed more as youthful insurrection gone awry than anything more substantive or interesting. These kids hate Christianity because they’re evil and it represents authority, and they’re racist because it’s edgy more than anything else. In reality, fascinating layers played into this whole scenario, but the movie brushes past them.
Japanese director Sion Sono was originally slated to adapt Lords of Chaos, which would have been bonkers, but Jonas Akerlund is probably the ideal choice. Not only does he have a background in music videos for that side of things, the Norway-born filmmaker played drums for black metal band Bathory and was part of this scene around this time. He captures an authentic ambiance that feels true to the moment in time and place. And he cranks the tension and paranoia as the situation spirals further and further out of control.
The story ultimately peaks in crescendos of violence, and Akerlund places the viewer right there. These are horrific acts and hate crimes, and the unflinching presentation never blinks or shies away from that. But they often cross a line into overkill, at least from a structural perspective. Showing the raw ugliness and brutality of their heinous acts drives home how far gone these kids are, but they also drag on, damage the narrative momentum, and waste time.
The story of Euronymous, Varg, Mayhem, Burzum, and the chaos surrounding the Norwegian black metal scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s is shocking. Photos of churches engulphed in flames and tales of band members wearing necklaces made out of skull fragment left over from a friend’s suicide (not to mention the stories of brain stew) definitely grab attention. There’s a reason this made global news. Lords of Chaos focuses on the sensational and outlandish elements, and though that makes for one hell of a spectacle, it doesn’t offer much beyond. [Grade: C+]